We read in Parashat Bamidbar of the census taken of Benei Yisrael at Mount Sinai, in which all males age twenty and above in every tribe except the tribe of Levi were counted. Afterward, God commanded that a separate census be taken of the tribe of Levi, which was assigned the special task of serving in the Mishkan. Levi’s census differed from the census of the rest of the tribes in that included even young children – all males from the age of one month (3:15).
Rashi (3:16), based on the Midrash Tanchuma, comments that because the census of Levi included the infants, special divine assistance was required. After Moshe received the command to count all male Levites from the age of one month, the Midrash relates, he turned to God and asked, “How can I go into all of their homes and into their tents to know the number of their babies?”
God replied, “You do yours, and I will do Mine.”
The Midrash proceeds to tell that Moshe stood at the entrance of each Levite tent, and a heavenly voice announced the number of children in each tent. For this reason, the Midrash concludes, the Torah tells that Moshe counted the Leviyim “al pi Hashem” – “by the word of the Lord” (3:16), as it was God’s word that informed him the number of males in each Levite home.
This account in the Midrash has been explained as noting the importance of basic manners and etiquette, as showing us that even for an important cause, one must not violate the rules of elementary courtesy. After being commanded to count even the infants of the tribe of Levi, Moshe immediately realized that God could not possibly expect him to go inside all the Leviyim’s homes, which would be inappropriate – because Moshe understood that even for a lofty purpose, basic standards of etiquette must be maintained. More specifically, the Midrash here teaches us the importance of respecting people’s privacy, that we have no right to go inside people’s “tents” – their private domain – to learn about their personal lives without their consent. Even if we feel our violation of people’s privacy is necessary for serving some important objective, the Midrash teaches, we have no right to invade their private space.
We might also suggest an additional perspective on the Midrash’s comments. Just as Moshe was not entitled to go into a Levite tent to determine the number of males in the home who would be serving in the Mishkan, similarly, we do not have the ability to determine the extent of any person’s potential, how much a person is capable of contributing and accomplishing. Moshe was able to find out how many adults and grown children living in each Levite tent, but he was unable to go inside the tent to see the infants – perhaps symbolizing the fact that there is often far more potential within each person than what meets the eye. We can and generally do recognize other people’s fine qualities, talents and capabilities, but very often, there is far more than that inside their “tent” – enormous potential beneath the surface that we are not able to see. Before casting judgment, we must recognize that we see only a small part of other people’s abilities and promise, that people often have within them the potential for greatness which is concealed from our vision. We must therefore show respect for all people – trusting that there is greatness beneath the surface which will eventually be manifest and become clearly visible, far more than what we see in the present.